It’s been 19 long, highly anticipated years since we saw Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones Jr. ride off into the sunset in The Last Crusade. Now, Harrison Ford finally returns to the big screen as everyone’s favorite louche in Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Does the dynamite, imaginative duo of creator George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg resuscitate what is arguably the most well known and beloved protagonist to ever grace the big screen? Sadly, no. This appears to be a case where all involved had a blast getting back together for a fourth film after what appeared to be a concluded trilogy, but forgot to make a good movie.
Don’t think of me as some kind of cynical looking for attention here. Take this review for what you will, but I promise it comes from the disappointed heart of someone who thinks Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of the all-time great movies. And I’m not even trying to measure Crystal Skull with Raiders either. Even compared to The Temple of Doom, which I consider to be the weakest of the original three, the film doesn’t live up to the billing. I believe the cardinal rule for a critic is to just be honest and to backup your opinion with good arguments. That’s just what I intend to do here.
The first hour of Crystal Skull is Indiana Jones at its cinematic best, while the farcical second hour completely destroys everything the film had going for it. The setup is really fantastic, and in it we get to experience Spielberg’s love for the 1950’s. The movie begins with the most unexpected scene of two guys and their girlfriends cruising on the open desert road when they stumble upon a group of military vehicles and try to get the lead car to drag race with them.
Then we follow that convoy as they drive to a restricted base, which we soon learn is Area 51. Then we realize that the soldiers in the convoy aren’t American, but Soviets in disguise. They kill all the guards and break into a warehouse filled with our nation’s most closely kept secrets. You would think that Area 51 would be under more heavy guard, but no matter; it’s fun so far. Next, we see our old pal Indiana Jones (Ford) and his war buddy Mac (Ray Winstone) being dragged out of a trunk. The leader of the Soviets, Iriana Spalko (Cate Blanchett), tells Jones he’s been brought there to help them find one of thousands of boxes, the contents of which Jones apparently helped research.
After the Soviets find what they are looking for, cue Indy to make his spectacular escape. Back in New York, Indy is approached by Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), a greaser who is quick with a knife and good on a bike and in a lot of ways akin to Indiana himself. Mutt knows Indy’s former collegemate, Professor Oxley (John Hurt), very well and comes to Jones with information about Oxley’s latest research about a crystal skull and the lost city of El Dorado. Then the two head for South America to solve a mystery that’s out of this world, as they discover that the skull was definitely not made by human hands. Meanwhile, they realize that the Soviets also seem to be after the skull, and to obtain leverage on Indy, they kidnap his old flame, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen).
It’s no surprise that Lucas chose for his premise the legend of El Dorado, which just screams adventure. However, I cannot possibly comprehend what Lucas and co-writer Jeff Nathanson were thinking (or smoking) when they decided to send their story into total chaos by adding extra-terrestrials into the mix. By doing this, the writers have a lot of explaining to do and the film gets bogged down and talky with Indy trying to clarify details to the audience; members of which that aren’t paying close attention will find themselves lost and confused as to what is going on. I myself am not totally sure or confident about exactly what happened. So the question I’ll be asking myself for a long time to come is: Why not just simply stick to the concept of the lost city of gold?
It’s amazing when you think about how uneven the movie is. It’s a tale of two halves. I was satisfied with the first hour, and with the exception of Indy surviving the epicenter of a nuclear blast at a test site (not kidding), it felt like the Indy movies of old, fraught with well timed humor and action. There’s one scene, which I’m sure you’ve seen in the teaser trailer, where Indy tries to whip towards a car, misses, falls back into a cargo truck and says “Damn, I thought that was closer.” That’s great stuff, but then we have to watch in disbelief as the movie jettisons all reason and plausibility and collapses on itself with a ridiculous final thirty minutes.
Say what you will about the age factor making no difference for Harrison Ford, but I did not sense the same swagger and pizzazz he had twenty years ago. Maybe his performance was perfunctory, but something about him felt off. Shia LaBeouf makes for a worthy sidekick as Mutt, while Cate Blanchett is only a memorable villain because of her distinctive appearance. The Nazi’s made a much better opponent than the Soviets do here. Ray Winstone is lackluster as Mac, and we’re never sure about which side he is on. Finally, Karen Allen does make a most welcome return as Marion and she, more than Harrison himself, is the one who hasn’t missed a beat in 27 years.
As far as action goes, every Indiana Jones movie has one memorable chase sequence, and Crystal Skull is no exception. This one is set in the jungles of the Amazon, and I think it should be compared with the truck chase in Raiders; at least until Shia LaBeouf suddenly becomes Tarzan. On a technical level, this is the far superior film, but with today’s technology, that is to be expected. The cinematography by Spielberg’s longtime partner Janusz Kaminiski (he also worked on the amazing recent masterpiece, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) is breathtakingly lavish and there are some wide shots of waterfalls that are spectacular. Still, none of this really matters without a good story at the movie’s center.
Thus, there is little question as to what the most disappointing film of 2008 is so far. 19 years of writing and rewriting scripts, and all for nothing. The supposed reason it has taken so long is because Lucas was never satisfied with any of the proposed scripts. Well, I can’t imagine anyone of them being any weaker or sillier or more incongruous than the one at hand. In my mind, that shot of Indiana riding off into the sunset will always be the final shot of this series.